Indulging in a decidedly un-Scottish form of walking, Ronald Turnbull spends a mollycoddled week in huts on Austria's spectacular Stubai Höhenweg.
Hut to Hut in the Alps - It's the opposite of what we do in the UK. Specifically, it turns the Unna Rules upside-down.
"Abroad," as LP Hartley didn't say in his novel The Go-Between, "is a foreign country. They do things differently there." In 1937, Percy Unna (1878 - 1950) President of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, inscribed a set of ten rules about Scottish hills and their management (or lack of it). Fifty years earlier, the Rev Franz Xaverius Senn (1831 – 1884) set the mountain scene in Austria's Stubai valley in a somewhat different way. Like, the exact opposite.
Unna: that the hills should not be made easier or safer to climb. Franz Senn's subtle tweak: remove the word 'not'. Unna: that no signposts, paint marks, cairns should be allowed. Franz Senn: that signposts should be abundant and painted bright yellow. Unna: that no Shelters of any kind be built. Franz Senn: well let's start on that pretty meadow at the bottom of the Alpeiner glacier.
And so was created a way of walking in the hills that's the opposite of Scotland. You could make a formal debate over which of these ways is right and wrong – like John Milton's two poems on whether Day or Night be the more excellent, or Boris Johnson's two newspaper articles one Brexit and one Remain. Alternatively, you could take a train to Innsbruck and a bus along the Stubai valley. You could hike up to what's now named as the Franz-Senn Hut; and you could set out on some Austrian high-level walking. Despite being altogether Not Scottish, is this Austrian high-level lark actually any fun?
I think you'll find that it is...
Unna's Rules (1937) [slightly abridged]
1. That "primitive" means not less primitive that the existing state.
2. That Sheep Farming and Cattle-Grazing may continue, but that Deer Stalking must cease.
3. That regulations, if any, should be limited to such as may in future be found absolutely necessary, and be in sympathy with the views expressed herein.
4. That the hills should not be made easier or safer to climb.
5a. That no facilities should be introduced for mechanical transport.
5b. That paths should not be extended or improved; and that new paths should not be made.
6. That no directional or other signs, whether signposts, paint marks, cairns, or of any other kind whatever, should be allowed.
7. That should a demand spring up for Hotels or Hostels it is possible that it may have to be satisfied to a limited extent. If so, they should only be built alongside the public roads.
8. That no other facilities should be afforded for obtaining Lodging, Shelter, Food or Drink; and, especially, that no Shelters of any kind be built on the hills.
The un-Unna Rules
1. That the hills should be made easier or safer to climb.
2. That directional or other signs, whether signposts, paint marks, cairns, or of any other kind whatever, should be painted in conspicuous and cheerful colours.
3. That paths should be extended and improved; and that new paths should be made.
4. That no facilities should be introduced for mechanical transport apart from dangly cablecars, we love those, as well as dirt tracks to bring fresh creamcakes up to the hut, also mountain railways, of course.
5. That should a demand spring up for Hotels or Hostels it is possible that it may have to be satisfied. If not, build 'em anyway.
6. That all facilities should be afforded for obtaining Lodging, Shelter, Food and Drink; and, especially, that Shelters of any kind be built on the hills.
7. That "primitive" means cream cakes served on the balcony.
The Franz Senn Hut is, these days, more of a small hotel than anything you'd find at the bottom of your garden with a lawnmower and a mouldering pile of Exchange & Mart magazine. It's lost some of the special features of the late 1880s, such as the organic 'plank-with-a-hole-in-sticking-over-a-big-cliff' toilet facilities, and the breakfasts of four-day-old bread. While retaining others, such as red-and-white shutters; the plank beds with the special blankets marked 'Fuß' for the more odorous feet end; the dirndl-clad serving staff; the 6am start-time; the all important cream cakes. Add to these such novelties as drying rooms with dehumidifiers that actually get stuff dry; fresh veg brought up on the freight cable; occasionally even the Internet.
We arrived at Franz Senn's inaugural hut after six days and five hut nights. Six days high level all the way, with four or five high passes, a couple of airy ridgelines, and a whole lot of contour paths along high, steep hillsides above grey hazy valleys. Six days carrying a basic daypack, with the addition of a sheet sleeping bag for the night. Six days of rugged but unhurried mountain ground, each one less than 10 miles and a Munro's worth of uphill at 900m or so.
There'd been one rainy day, when we didn't notice how damp we were getting because of being on glacier-scraped slabs tailing off into a whole lot of emptiness and a mountain stream in spate crashing about down there. Scary bits – there were plenty of scary bits – all came equipped with a wire cable to hang onto alongside. There'd been a day of sunshine after the rain, with cloud trapped in the hollows and golden light on the rocks and a grey glacier across the valley opposite. A drizzly half-day, over a scree pass between two rock towers half-seen in the mist, and then some bouldery bits, and then a long side slope of scrub willow and dwarf pine, brought us to Franz's hut in time for a late lunch.
In another outbreak of non-Scottishness, the Austrians have a sport called klettersteig, or climbing – or as it would be called in Scotland, 'that's not climbing!' The Scottish principle 'a piton shall not be put' is extended to 'a piton shall not be put without another piton, and a wire cable between them, and some metal staples to stand on'. It's all the airy excitement of rockclimbing – without having to climb on any rock. Up from the Franz Senn Hut, where the end of the glacier was before it melted, a rushing mountain torrent has been blocked by house-sized boulders falling in on top. The klettersteig route goes in under the boulders to dangle above the torrent. Is it climbing? Certainly not! Is it fun? Well, it's raining and I haven't brought the special klettersteig gear with the harness and the snaplinks. But it surely looks like fun...
The alternative is the traditional foul-weather activity called 'festering in the hut'. Order another cream cake, and relax with the hut's English-language library, which consists of a severely battered Volume 3 from 'Game of Thrones'. (Well, Exchange & Mart ceased publication as a paper magazine in 2009.)
After sunshine, rain, cloud and drizzle, Day Seven dawned different again. Cloud, yes; of the solid grey Scottish sort, rather than the blowy-about Alpine variety. But also a sprinkle of wet, fresh snow. The effect was more reminiscent of the Arrochar Alps than the proper Alpine ones. But it did raise the issue: what if the path was covered up and the red paint marks all snowed over? The obvious option was to take the long zigzag path 500m down to the valley, and trek along the valley, and take the other long zigzag path 700m up to the other hut. Or, the other obvious option was to go up into the snow and see.
The path from the Senn Hut heads out horizontal – while the valley below drops away extremely steep. No fun for the people trekking down the long zigzags; but at once, for us, views across the grey hazy hollow to snow-sprinkled slopes opposite, and bits of cliff wafting in and out among the clouds like the dance of the seven veils but without the finger cymbals.
And then we're up into the cloud, for a world of nothing much at all; divided into steep sprinkly snowslope out of the left-hand eye, and off-white air out of the right-hand one. We don't have our altimeter, but we can measure the up and down by the snow getting slightly deeper, or a bit more grey and melty. This goes on for several hours; several hours of sensory deprivation, while wondering if it would all end with the path fading away into a steep snow slope, or maybe, eventually, another hut fading in out of the grey.
But no. Like the several billion items of neither-yes-nor-no inside Google's new quantum computer suddenly collapsing into an actual answer, a sharp edged rock appears ahead as the cloud flops apart to an outbreak of actual something. Another hundred metres, and the actual something becomes an airy rock ridge, and a little yellow signpost – and a whole lot of jaggy mountaintops, sandwiched between two slabs of sliced white like the crisps in an especially unwholesome Scottish sandwich.
You've been reading about the Stubaital Höhenweg – an 8-day trip with its own website and a centralised hut booking system on the Internet. But hut-to-hut is all over the Alps, and indeed the whole of non-UK Europe. Austria has a höhenweg or high-level route round almost any valley, as well as the 30-day Adlerweg or Eagle Path. But the huts and the paths between them are marked on the maps: you can equally well make up your own one. Restrict yourself to Austria, Italy and France and you don't even have to change your currency. Or you can do it in Switzerland. The mountains in Switzerland are big and steep, and so are the prices. In Austria, if you use the communal 'matratzenlager' or dormitory accommodation, and the 'halbpension' or fixed menu dinner and breakfast, hut-to-hut hiking comes in at less than 50 euros a day. And then there's all the rest of non-UK EU: Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain...
Boris Johnson chose between his two speeches, came down (you may already know about this) on the side of Brexit. But when it comes to Austria versus Scotland, I like the Labour Party's way. Let's dither about between the two. Scotland is special. But in August, when the midges are out – isn't it fun to break every one of Unna's Rules, all of them together? And follow Franz-Xavier Senn along the paint marked paths of Austria.